Last Tuesday the Wu-Tang Clan released its long-awaited sixth album, A Better Tomorrow. It’s a solid if disjointed piece of work, assembled after many months of premature promotion and intermittent public squabbling. It also lands awkwardly: The album was supposed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the group’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, a birthday that provoked a tidal wave of retrospectives (I contributed to this, expansively), but that was now more than a year ago. The whole affair has been an unwelcome reminder that the Wu-Tang Clan is no longer really a group so much as a big, yellow, W-shaped monument to something that was. Reviewing the album in the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones suggested that “if A Better Tomorrow does anything for you, go straight to yesterday.”
Sound advice, but you could also go straight to today, when another Wu-related product arrives with significantly less pomp and former-glory fanfare. Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons is a better record than A Better Tomorrow, which by now shouldn’t count as a surprise: In the 21 years since Enter the Wu-Tang, Ghost has assembled the most impressive solo career of any Wu member by a considerable margin. 36 Seasons is a concept album about a too-good-for-this-Earth superhero named Tony Starks (no, not that one) who returns from a prolonged absence to rescue his neighborhood from the clutches of would-be evildoers. At first glance the title seems an homage to the aforementioned 36 Chambers, but it doubles as a measure of the specific time our hero has been away—nine years. Ghostface’s co-stars include true-school legends Kool G Rap, AZ, and Pharoahe Monch, all in character as various antagonists and accomplices, while musical backdrops are provided by the Revelations, a Brooklyn-based soul band.
Taken in altogether, 36 Chambers is something like Across 110th Street meets Alan Moore’s Top 10, the sort of album that one might call “cinematic” if only a Hollywood studio would ever have the guts or good sense to greenlight something like this. Like all of Ghostface Killah’s music, it exists on and for its own terms, nestled in tradition while never preening over its adherence to it. References to past triumphs are oblique, fleeting, and rare: on “Loyalty” we hear a reference to the opening line to “C.R.E.A.M.”—“I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side”—but it’s dropped by a guest star (Brooklyn rapper Nems), and besides, that was Raekwon’s line in the first place. This is an entire Ghostface Killah album that never even mentions Ghostface Killah.
36 Seasons doesn’t rank with the highest points of Ghost’s solo catalog—1996’s Ironman, 2000’s Supreme Clientele, 2006’s Fishscale, to name three—though little in this world does. But the fact that it even exists is testament to one of the more remarkable careers in recent American music. At 44 years old and more than two decades deep into his career, Ghostface Killah is one of the great rarities in any art, and maybe the first of his kind in rap: an artist who appears to grow only more prolific and adventurous with age. In the past 10 years, he’s released eight solo albums, three more album-length collaborations, and a seemingly endless barrage of guest appearances, unofficial releases, and far-flung side projects. In 2013 he branched into comic books with Twelve Reasons to Die, a six-part companion piece to an album of the same title that he’d made with the composer and producer Adrian Younge. The extent of Ghost’s personal involvement with the series is unclear—he has a “created by” credit—but the tone and content (read: creative and profligate N- and F-bombs) bear strong traces of his influence.
For a man whose name connotes cartoonish levels of terror, if there is a defining quality of Ghostface Killah’s catalog it’s something like joy, a boundless and unchecked exuberance for music and his own imagination. He is the Tasmanian Devil of rap, a man who doesn’t spit bars so much as devour them, fiendishly outracing his own breath. He’s rightly regarded as one of the genre’s great storytellers, but where others have tended toward hard-boiled terseness, Ghost spins his yarns with a sort of desperate, exaggerated enormity. Tracks like “Mighty Healthy” “Saturday Nite,” and “Run” unfold like fever-dreams of relentless action, meticulously detailed and meticulously unhinged. Take, for existence, the following description of a car ride from Fishscale’s “Shakey Dog:” “Whip smellin’ like fish from 125th / Throwin’ ketchup on my fries, hittin’ baseball spliffs / Back seat with my leg all stiff, push the fuckin’ seat up / Tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks.” In one brief stanza, we know what the car smells like; we know what food Ghost is eating, where he got it, and what condiment is on it; we know Ghost’s foot is asleep and he isn’t happy about it; we know what kind of shoes Ghost has on, and what condiment is on his shoes.
He’s also been a pioneer of new emotional frontiers in hip-hop, his shouty stream of consciousness often giving way to startling reservoirs of emotional depth. He has long been rap’s premier poet of childhood, most famously exemplified by “All That I Got Is You,” his 1996 duet with Mary J. Blige. “Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head / I didn’t like to sleep with Jon-Jon, he peed the bed,” rapped Ghost against the shimmering backdrop of the Jackson 5’s “Maybe Tomorrow,” an image that manages to be heartbreaking, hilarious, unexpectedly wholesome. Or Supreme Clientele’s slightly deranged and totally irresistible “Child’s Play,” an obscene and affectionate ode to boyhood innocence (or lack thereof), in which Ghost reminisces on bygone pleasures from Boston Baked Beans to pillow-humping. For all his devotion to Stan Lee- and Tarantino-esque pulp, Ghostface’s most unique legacy might be as hip-hop’s Richard Linklater.
But his greatest legacy might be how he’s handled aging, his apparent conviction that being a rapper of a certain age doesn’t require you to sit around making tribute albums to yourself. One of the more understated achievements of 36 Seasons is how well it holds together as an organic whole, the work of a performer who’s comfortable sublimating his talents and stardom to a larger vision. In the middle of the album is a painstakingly faithful cover of the Persuaders’ 1971 classic “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” performed by the Revelations with Ghost nowhere to be heard. It exists solely as background color, a mood-setting touch of mise-en-scène, and it works perfectly.
Ghostface’s body of work stands tall with any member of his generation’s, and it’s quite a generation—the three years between the release of Enter the Wu-Tang and Ironman (his first official solo album) saw the debuts of Nas, Outkast, the Notorious B.I.G., the Fugees, Jay Z, to name just a handful. It’s also a generation that has, perhaps inevitably, seen the full flowering of a classic rock or Big Chill-style nostalgia industry, from lavishly packaged reissues to halfhearted, disingenuous “comebacks” to ghoulish holographic guest spots.
Complaining about this sort of thing is as tiresome as complaining about kids-today-and-their-dang-Migos, but it’s an insidious and dangerous development, because America has always been far too good at sentimentalizing its culture and the conditions that produced it. Triumphalist narratives about How Harvard Learned to Love Nas are fine for Harvard and fine for Nas, but they’ve both been doing all right for a while. If hip-hop becomes yet another vehicle for people in power to congratulate themselves on how great everything used to be, we’ll have truly lost the point.
In the meantime Ghostface Killah keeps making music, at a pace that’s appropriately superheroic and seems unlikely to stop, at least anytime soon: No rapper’s ever been less likely to be accused of having nothing to say. 36 Seasons is a fun and inventive and totally alive album about Tony Starks rescuing Staten Island from corruption, injustice, and moral decay: With all respect to the Wu, I’ll take that better tomorrow today.